The Harm Principle and Wise Discernment

by James Anderson

 

The Dalai Lama in “Ethics for a New Millennium” suggests that there is an important role for critical thinking – i.e. reason and logic – in avoiding harm:

“Skillful means can be understood in terms of the efforts we make to ensure that our deeds are motivated by compassion. Insight refers to our critical faculties and how, in response to the different factors involved, we adjust the ideal of non-harming to the context of the situation. We could call it the faculty of wise discernment.” (p. 149)

I know of no more reliable source regarding compassion and “harm” than the Dalai Lama. His emphasis upon wise discernment as an essential factor in compassion is worth noting. Compassion is more informed than the “Harm Principle” seems to be. A “caring” response to an addict, without the use of wise discernment, might be to alleviate their immediate suffering by giving them another fix. Wise discernment would provide a longer-term perspective. Short-term “harm” might be necessary in order to get the addict into treatment and healed from their addiction. True compassion, a more thoughtful and difficult path, would require dealing with the rage of the addict at the refusal to meet their immediate needs.

During the election of 2020 my neighbor had a prominent “Trump 2020 MAGA” sign in his front yard. This sign initially caused me emotional distress. This “emotional distress” fits the idea of “harm” proclaimed by the “Harm Principle.” But I soon recovered from that “harm” with the realization that he had every right to put up his sign; I live in a society where people have the right to free speech even if it causes emotional distress in others.

I don’t want to live in a society where I am protected from all emotional distress. I want to be part of a civil society that allows me and my fellow human beings to distress each other by their ideas and opinions, and to debate and decide, through wise discernment, what would be the most compassionate course of action. This requires tolerating a certain level of emotional distress and being unafraid to cause it in others.

I also live in a society of justice and laws. My neighbor may have the right to cause me emotional distress by putting up a sign, but he does not have the right to paint the same message on the side of my house. And this may be a way to distinguish “harm” that should be tolerated from harm that should not; the dividing line between putting up a sign on his property and painting the same slogan on the side of my house does offer me some clarity. I am offended by both actions but one I must tolerate in order to live in civil society, the other is not tolerated.

Those arguing for a “Harm Principle” claim that in trying to form a “beloved community” there should be stronger protections against “harm” than in general civil society. They seek to create a compassionate, loving space for people with marginalized identities. Yet, as the Dalai Lama says above, compassion requires “skillful means” and the use of “our critical faculties.” People of any identity tend to dislike being treated in a patronizing manner as if they were children and needed protection from ideas that might upset them. A “covenantal” beloved community should also follow the Dalai Lama and use their critical faculties and wise discernment, and avoid substituting patronizing sympathy for informed compassion.

“The changes say that while freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are still important, they are not our highest priority. We must finally also acknowledge the harm they can and do cause, hold each other accountable for that harm, and stop the actions that cause harm.”

– Rev. Jill McAllister

Setting up “harm” as “our highest priority” was most likely envisioned by well-meaning people who wanted to prioritize caring and empathy over other less “loving” virtues. This may explain why logic and reason, as “hard-hearted” values – “cornerstones of white supremacy culture” – came to be regarded with suspicion; the Harm Principle originated in order to “side with love” against the other “side,” which is, apparently an “unloving” side.

If this is the case – if “harm” is established as the highest priority – then it might be worthwhile to establish some agreed-upon definition; what it is and how to avoid perpetrating it. But without appeals to wise discernment and some form of critical thinking, it is hard to see how such a Harm Principle can be examined. Without some sort of general understanding of the nature of “harm” established by some sort of rational dialogue, it becomes a subjective, arbitrary judgment.

Perhaps we can look to Rev. Jill McAllister, in her letter (quoted above) addressing the UUMA controversy, for help with this. She puts forth an analogy that might be considered in seeking to understand this new principle of “harm:”

“we declared, finally, after decades, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct by ministers. Does this limit the freedom of some ministers? Yes. It limits their “freedom” to harm others. This is a higher priority, finally.”

“Harm,” we are also told is what happens in a “micro-aggression.” And “micro-aggressions” are things like welcoming someone with a marginalized identity too enthusiastically. This was an actual example held up at GA 2019 as a “microaggression.” Is the “harm” from this over-enthusiastic welcoming analogous to “sexual misconduct?” (This, of course, is a heretical question and is “harmful” in itself.)

According to this new overarching Principle “harm” is to be decided entirely by the person who feels they have been “harmed.” It is not open to debate – questioning the victim is another “microaggression.” Asking for clarity, investigating the charge of “harm,” or seeking the input of the “oppressor” who perpetrated the “harm” are also “harms” in themselves. There is no appeal to justice, no seeking for truth, no other examination allowed; if the victim feels “harmed” then they were “harmed” and, as Rev. Jill McAllister states, “we are no longer going to let that go.”

There is a reason images of Lady Justice portray her as blind. Justice must be blind to anything but the evidence and must examine facts with impartiality. She is not swayed by identities of the perpetrator or the victim. They are of secondary importance and should only enter into considerations of justice if that is necessary to get at the truth of the situation, to determine what really happened, beyond a reasonable doubt. Only then is it reasonable to judge who is at fault and what the consequences should be.

Obviously, the new Harm Principle has little to do with justice, or due process, or facts, or evidence, or reason, or logic; in fact, those things are considered oppressions in themselves and are understood as being used by oppressors to “harm” the oppressed. This new Principle presents the opinion that caring about self-proclaimed victims trumps all other principles and is required in an empathetic, caring “beloved community.” Lacking wise discernment and the use of critical faculties it also does not meet the standards for compassion set by the Dalai Lama. Most people do not appreciate being treated as fragile children; they would see that as something other than compassion. Protecting them from “harm” may in itself be harmful, because they are perfectly capable of dealing with emotional distress in a mature fashion.

Along with these very real problems with the “Harm Principle” there is also a darker side to this movement within UUism (and elsewhere).  Jonathan Haidt (http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/ ) discusses a study by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, “Microaggression and moral cultures” ( http://www.academia.edu/10541921/Microaggression_and_Moral_Cultures ):

“in the 18th and 19th centuries most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it…this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood which… gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim…it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.”

This “culture of victimhood” is a difficult and dangerous idea to bring up in UU spaces. Ideas like ‘safetyism’ are considered heretical and surrounded by taboos. But there is no denying that there is a transactional power relation in the interactions between those whose status arises from being a “defender of victims” and those whose status arises from being righteous victims. And these power relations can overtake rules about due process established in the general society. Ministers can be excommunicated without due process if they fail to obey the Harm Principle; there is great power in “fragile and aggrieved victims” especially within a liberal religious faith community.

The following is quoted from the UU World, Fall 2018.

“Trustee Christina Rivera, UUA secretary, was hospitalized the evening of April 20 with heart-related issues and was unable to attend the meeting on April 21. Gardner read a statement from Rivera during Saturday’s meeting that said, ‘I’m sitting in my room with a heart muscle damaged by the white supremacy in the U.S. and from Unitarian Universalism. That is the damage that we are asking you to consider.’ Rivera, who was able to return to her Virginia home the following Tuesday, is under a doctor’s care and improving, she said.

“After caucusing in racial identity groups on Saturday, trustees discussed and then affirmed the direction of an amended version of Gardner’s recommendations developed by the caucus of people of color. With Gardner, Mishra-Marzetti, and others emphasizing that the burden of delay is borne by people of color ‘whose lives are being destroyed,’ in Gardner’s words, the board agreed to move quickly on the recommendations, including determining how to influence congregations to deal with white supremacy in their cultures.”

Questions naturally arise about the cause of the damage to Ms. Rivera’s heart:  did her doctor determine that it was indeed caused by “white supremacy?” Raising such questions is a delicate and very dangerous thing to do, but what is clear is that her statement was powerful and had a powerful effect upon the UU Board. If white supremacy within UUism has reached such an extent that it is destroying the lives and damaging the heart muscles of people of color then it is an emergency that must and should take priority over all other principles.

If it is not, then those promoting the Harm Principle are causing real and devastating harm to the “beloved community” they claim to care so much about. The intensive promotion of the “Harm Principle” within UUism, and the move to give it the highest priority – above all the other Principles – is a clear indication that the “culture of victimhood” is occupying a central space within the organization. With its arbitrary and subjective definition, it doesn’t allow for wise discernment or the use of critical faculties. It, therefore, cannot be considered compassionate.

All that is left then is that it must be nothing but a quest for power (and money), disguised in “caring” rhetoric.

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Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago

The Fifth Principle Project ostensibly exists to support the Fifth Principle, but in reality seems to exist to oppose anti-racism work, as that is the focus of virtually every article on this website. “The Anti-anti-racism Project” would seem to be a more accurate name.

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

That wouldn’t be an accurate name as it is the current topic at hand. I believe what the FPP is more concerned is about how the UUA has incorporated, not, differences in opinion regardless of the specific topic at hand.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago

It’s hard for me to know where to start with this incredibly dismissive article. I don’t know James Anderson, but it doesn’t seem like he’s spent sleepless nights after witnessing the harmful impact of racism and anti-Blackness in UUA communities. I’m not the least bit surprised to hear someone had medical problems because of the stress of responding to racism within UUism. In some ways, the term “microagression” is a poor term: it implies the impact is small, while also implying the person committing the microagression is malicious or aggressive. “Ingrained otherization” might be more accurate, though let’s not expect… Read more »

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago

Claiming that people of color who don’t want to experience racism and microaggressions are acting like children is a particularly unfortunate analogy. I wonder if the author is aware of the centuries-old practice of White people calling Black adults terms such as “boy” and “son.”

Katie S
Katie S
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

You write, “I wonder if the author is aware of the centuries-old practice of White people calling Black adults terms such as “boy” and “son.”” Is this an honest question that you are asking the author, or is it an attempt to make his questioning the validity of microagressions be seen in a negative light? As you may (or may not) know, there is no solid research supporting the concept of microagressions. It is part of a current narrative, and like some other concepts within that narrative (like implicit bias, which you also mention obliquely in a later post) are… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Katie S
Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Katie S

Hi Katie! Yes, it’s an honest question. Perhaps the author wasn’t aware of the historical reasons his metaphor was particularly offensive. I like to assume best intentions on these things. However, now being aware, he can apologize for using an inappropriate metaphor and avoid it in the future – much like a comedian who may have used blackface in the past to play a Black character without really realizing the historical reasons why blackface is inappropriate. No solid research regarding implicit biases? That statement is counter-factual; there is in fact a ton of high-quality, scholarly, and scientific research on implicit… Read more »

Katie S
Katie S
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

If you look deeper into the Post’s databases, you’ll find that class is the primary factor with police violence. No one is denying racism, however. It’s the anti-racist theoretical framework that is being questioned. But the subject of research into microagressions and implicit bias is not addressed in your article. It’s a big leap to what you posted and these two subjects. Many UU’s have worked to combat racism for a long time, many of us since the 1960’s. Good progress has been made, and has continued. At this point, many people think that addressing the problem with class will… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Katie S
Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Katie S

First “If you look deeper into the Post’s databases, you’ll find that class is the primary factor with police violence.” You’ve made a baseless assertion that is demonstrably false. “No one is denying racism, however.” Indeed, many people deny racism’s existence. I’m glad you don’t, but you are denying the existence of implicit bias and microagressions – two well-documented manifestations of racism – in the face of overwhelming evidence. “I’m not sure where the solid implicit bias and microagression research (based in primary sources that use the scientific method) could be found.” What actions did you take to look for… Read more »

Daniel G.
Daniel G.
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

There is reason to be macroskepical about microaggressions: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691616659391

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago

Rev. Jill McAllister creates a false equivalence between society in general and UU communities. In society in general, I can wave a Confederate flag, put a sign in my window supporting the KKK, freely use the “n-word” to address people of color. While Rev. Jill acknowledges that UU communities are different, she doesn’t fully acknowledge that, as democratic institutions, UU communities may freely and democratically set their own rules of conduct for those who would be a part of those communities. Through our democratic process, we can set rules that say that those kinds of abhorrent speech aren’t allowed among… Read more »

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

My error – I attributed to Rev. Jill opinions that were in fact those of the author James Anderson.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago

The end of this article is particularly noxious: a baseless and unsubstantiated attack saying that people who don’t want racism in UU communities are motivated by money and power. That attack is in violation of FPP’s own purported code of conduct: “no labeling of groups without substantiation.” I call on FPP to remove that statement.

Deb donovan
Deb donovan
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

I think it is a great article- and I too am offended by last sentence- but my interest is in bridging.

Frank Casper
Frank Casper
3 months ago
Reply to  Deb donovan

If you find that last sentence offensive, then let me suggest you read our book. If you have already read it, then allow me to draw your attention to the last section of the chapter titled “New UU Orthodoxy”. The subtitle of that section is “UU Leadership Seeks Authority and Power.” Clearly, Mr. Clowes hasn’t read it. What Mr. Anderson is calling “The Harm Principle” is at the heart of all the versions of what leadership calls the “Right Relations Covenant.” Mr. Anderson’s last sentence is not an unsubstantiated slur. It’s a sound concluding observation.

James Anderson
James Anderson
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

Thank you. Yes, your excellent book would, indeed, lay to rest concerns about my concluding sentence. I think this is a good example of the kind of subjective “harm” that should be tolerated in a free thinking community. Unfortunately UUism is no longer such a community. Those of us who cause this kind of “harm” are now to be considered “out of covenant” heretics. It is interesting to observe UUism embrace the term “covenant;” it has a deep authoritarian history especially in the punishment aspects of “breaking” such a covenant. Its roots come from the Hebrew Bible and the word –… Read more »

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Frank Casper

There’s a double standard here. Here it is OK to impugn the motives of groups like BLUU. People who impugn the motives of anti-racist groups or individuals are “gadflies” and trying to suppress their speech is “censorship,” “cancel culture,” or “undemocratic.” FPP especially objects to “gadflies” being “cancelled” without being told specifically what they did wrong or having a chance to defend themselves. On the other hand, Fifth Principle Project has twice threatened to censor this gadfly’s comments on the grounds that they baselessly impugn their motives – without being able to offer a single example of when I’ve done… Read more »

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

Why would they censor speech like that? It is part of the dialogue.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt Johnson

Because it’s against the “Code of Conduct” of the website. But FPP is using a double standard. Anti-racist speech they threaten to censor; anti-anti-racist speech can freely make unfounded accusations impugning people’s motives – the very thing FPP says they abhor.

Robert Kent
Robert Kent
4 months ago

From a life long conservative police supporting Unitarian great admirer of MLK, (a strong tough minded leader not a victim) congratulations to James Anderson for fully engaging on this issue.

Schuyler
Schuyler
4 months ago

The issue being addressed here is that people interpret certain actions as harmful when they may or may not be, become personally offended (harming themselves in the process) and then take action to stop that behavior in others without analyzing any of the consequences of what might happen afterward. The UU principles are for the *individual* to seek guidance from, not for people or institutions to control the thoughts, speech, and actions of others with their own interpretation of them. Now, you can choose who you want to be around. If you think someone’s behavior is “problematic” then you are… Read more »

Arthur Ogawa
Arthur Ogawa
2 months ago
Reply to  Schuyler

Schuyler writes, “The UU principles are for the individual to seek guidance from, not for people or institutions…” The way I see the principles is rather literal: they begin with a preamble, as follows: We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: …and the Principles and Sources follow. Now, as a member of the leadership team at a lay-led fellowship, I interpret this statement to imply that our church has an agreement with the UUA. We lift up the Principles for our congregants to consider. This agreement in no way levels a demand on… Read more »

James Anderson
James Anderson
4 months ago

Frank and Jay, Thank you for posting this. I sincerely hope it doesn’t interfere with your campaign for UU Trustee. It’s hard to tell whether stirring up UU ideologues is going to help your cause or harm it. Publicity of any kind can be helpful, I guess. (It certainly seemed to give great attention to the Gadfly Papers – made it a UU bestseller.) I couldn’t agree more with the comment by Schuyler and I thank him for his response. As far as the others…well…it seems I have touched a nerve. I regret that the idea of wise discernment in… Read more »

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago
Reply to  James Anderson

James, if I say you are an ISIS member, would that be fine? What if I say that I’m open to refutations of my claim as long as they are cogent and well-reasoned?

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

If I have made any ad hominem attack, or any unsupported allegation, I would like to know about it so I can fix my behavior. Please direct me to any and every specific example.
By the same token, I hope that you now, having seen how this article contains an unsupported allegation impugning people’s motives, remove that unsupported allegation that is a violation of your own policy. Surely we agree that rules should be applied equally.

Robert Hedeen
Robert Hedeen
4 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

Mr. Clowes relentless trolling of this site serves the important purpose of reminding us of the emerging anti-liberal ideologies and attitudes in UU that make efforts like the Fifth Principal Project so important. Especially amusing is his continued insistence that “rules should be applied equally”, except of course, for those rules that should be relaxed for some groups in order to achieve equity rather than equality.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
4 months ago
Reply to  Robert Hedeen

Where have I supported anti-liberal ideologies? Where have I asked for rules to be applied differently from one person to another? It seems like you are attacking an argument for affirmative action which I haven’t made. Again, if FPP is to be true to its stated policy, FPP should remove the last sentence of this article. Ideally, the author would request for FPP to do so. Finally, Robert, what purpose does it serve to label my behavior as “trolling”? When people disagree with me, I assume we are debating different perspectives in good faith, and that through our conversations we… Read more »

Robert Hedeen
Robert Hedeen
4 months ago
Reply to  Tom Clowes

Wow! I rest my case.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  Robert Hedeen

Where have I supported anti-liberal ideologies?

Robert Hedeen
Robert Hedeen
4 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

We’ve got a real internet troll problem here. Isn’t there anything that can be done? As a long time UU I’m very concerned about the direction UUA is trying to take the denomination in, as reflected in this Project, and this guy is shouting us all down.

James Anderson
James Anderson
3 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

I don’t want to presume to tell you how to run your site…but I think it might be worthwhile to consider that this person is exhibiting behavior that seems to be characteristic of someone who considers themselves an “ally.” (I don’t personally ally myself with those who treat me with disrespect, but there is a large contingent of UU’s who don’t seem to mind an “alliance” that doesn’t involve mutual respect). He probably feels he is righteously fighting on the “side of love” against evil oppressors. Being warned and even banned would therefore be seen as badges of honor and… Read more »

Rev. Jack Reich
Rev. Jack Reich
3 months ago
Reply to  James Anderson

Beautifully argued, James. I agree with you. Banning him would not be constructive. He does appear to be sincere (“Please show me where i have offended…”); perhaps he is also educable.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

With all due respect, I have no idea what specifically I have written that is inappropriate. Would you please let me know each and every instance of an inappropriate comment I’ve made?

Katie S
Katie S
3 months ago
Reply to  WebMaster

Is there an “ignore” function that could be activated for this site? That way, those who wish to turn off his comments could do so.

Deborah C Donovan
Deborah C Donovan
3 months ago

This article is perfectly timed- I feel like I am being called into the principal’s office as a 3rd grader next week- because I am causing “harm” by asking respectfully that our lay leaders read “Used to be a UU”. What bothers me is that what should be “head” issue instead is causing me heart ache because I was labeled in writing by the minister as not good enough on the race issue. The brittle atmosphere of trying to respectfully engage is no fun. Again, this article met a practical need this week- thank you.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago

Is FPP only concerned about unsupported attacks when they’re directed at people they like? If not, and if FPP is genuinely concerned about unsupported attacks against anyone, they must take action against the last sentence of this post, which contains the exact kind of baseless allegation that FPP abhors.

Tom Clowes
Tom Clowes
3 months ago

FPP – you won’t like a video and petition I’ve created and am about to share. I don’t intend to hurt your feelings, but I suspect I will anyways, and so I apologize in advance.

Arthur Ogawa
Arthur Ogawa
2 months ago

Where can I fond an articulation of the “Harm Principle” that is argued against here?

Webmaster
Webmaster
2 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Ogawa

You’re posting in the thread that was started by what you’re looking for.

Arthur Ogawa
Arthur Ogawa
2 months ago
Reply to  Webmaster

Spurred on by the above response by Frank Casper (Webmaster), I did find John Stuart Mills’ articulation of a Harm Principle at Wikipedia. But Mills’ point is that only in cases of harm to another is a person’s liberty to be restricted by the state or by “moral coercion of public opinion”—in other words, by censure. I found also the full text of Jill McAllister’s letter to her congregation (UU Fellowship of Corvallis). The following is an excerpt (fuller than Anderson quoted in his article), in which she refers to actions taken within the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA): The… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by Arthur Ogawa
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